Friday, January 9, 2015

The future of denominations

A book that has greatly influenced my thinking and ministry is Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God by Greg Ogden.  The primary focus of the book is that ministry does not just belong to clergy but is the responsibility of all believers.  After making his case, Ogden turns to what needs to happen in churches for this transition to occur.  It is an excellent book that I highly recommend to every pastor.

Earlier today I was re-reading a section of the book and came across a statement that I had previously underlined but had forgotten was in the book.  Ogden noted that "denominational life as we know it is perhaps fifty years from extinction."  He went on to give several things that were happening that caused him to make this prediction.  Given that this book was first copyrighted in 1990 and revised in 2003, I spent some time thinking about his prediction.

Of course, people have been predicting the death of denominations for many years, but Ogden's statement was that denominational life as we know it is perhaps fifty years from extinction.  At this point, his prediction is about 25 years old, and I don't think too many people would argue that denominations are weaker now than they were 25 years ago.  In the next 25 years could we see an even further erosion of denominational life and perhaps even the death of some denominational bodies?  I think so, for the same reasons Ogden notes in the book as well as at least one additional reason.  The evidences he lists are

  • Denominations existed to keep alive a theological tradition.  In many denominations today it is difficult to find any sense of clarity of their theological heritage.
  • With that heritage came a commitment to a style of worship.  Without ever looking at the name of the church one could usually tell what denomination a church belonged to by their style of worship.  With the variety of worship styles today that is no longer the case.
  • People under sixty have little loyalty to denominations, and this includes pastors.
  • Many denominational churches believe it is more of a liability than an asset to be associated with a denomination.  
  • Numerous churches are now removing the denominational names from their church title.  While maintaining their relationship to the denomination, these churches are minimizing that relationship to appeal to more people.
Each of these continue to occur in the church today, and they continue to weaken denominations.  In addition to the ones he mentioned I would like to suggest one additional reason: their failure to recognize the growing numbers of bivocational churches within their denomination.

It is not uncommon today for one-third to one-half of all the churches in a denomination to now be led by bivocational pastors, and yet these pastors and the churches they serve continue to be ignored by most denominational bodies.  There are numerous judicatories who are addressing the needs of these churches and their pastors, but at the denominational level there is very little being done to resource and serve these churches.  I hear from bivocational pastors on a regular basis how lonely they feel as their needs are being totally ignored by their denominations.

No business would last long if it ignored the needs of one-third to one-half of its customers, but this is what many denominations are doing.  These churches and pastors need support so they turn to para-church organizations or other resources for the assistance they need.  Their loyalty and financial support is then given to the ones who provide them with the resources they need.

For the foreseeable future I believe the numbers of bivocational churches will continue to grow.  The denominations who are able to recognize this shift and are willing to support these churches can have a bright future.  The denominations who refuse to do either will soon find they are no longer relevant to the majority of their churches and will be abandoned by those churches.  At that point those denominations will no longer exist.

I think Ogden is right, in another 25 years denominational life as we know it will no longer exist.  Denominations are going to have to make some major changes in how they relate to churches and the resources they make available if they want to have any kind of a future ministry.  I'll write more about this in a later post.

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